Our crossing into Laos started with a forty-minute pickup-bus ride from the hotel to Chiang Khong, where we had the driver drop us at an ATM for a fill-up on Thai baht (which was maybe not a great idea; see the comments on Laotian currency in the description for that category by clicking here). Jen also grabbed some snacks, and then we took a tuk-tuk to the boat pier.
The crossing process between Chiang Khong on the Thai side, and Huay Xai on the Laotian side, is pretty organized – and also a bit pricey by Thai/Laotian standards.
You get your exit stamp from Thai immigration. No cost.
Then you walk to the boat landing (it’s more accurate to call it a landing than it is to call it a pier) and pay for the crossing of the Mekong to Huay Xai in Laos. A 500 meter or so ride for a cost of 40 baht each.
On the Laotian side, you push past the handful of touts and walk about 50 meters up the ramp to get to the Laotian immigration office. Here, you fill out two forms – an immigration form and an on-arrival visa application – and then hand that, a passport-type photo of yourself, your passport, and $35 US to the guy behind the counter (and they want US bills for the visa, not baht or kip). He hands it to a uniformed, more-official-looking guy who rummages through it all and does all the stamping and visa writing.
After about 15 minutes, you get your passport back with a stamp and a cool-looking Laos visa sticker that takes up a full page in your passport.
Total cost is about $36.35 US. That ain’t cheap around here.
The Laotian immigration guys are pretty particular about their US bills. They inspect the hell out of them for any flaws. I handed over two $20 bills to pay the $35 visa fee, and had one of the bills rejected for a 1/8-inch tear on the edge. Jen had a $10 bill microscopically examined (that’s a bit of exaggeration…but you get the point). They are equally anal on the change returned, as the $5 bill I received looked like it had been laundered and ironed.
So, bring your best US bills with you.
Slow Boat to Luang Prabang
Once cleared through the customs guys, we walked farther up the ramp from the waterfront, had to show our passports with visa to another small booth with a couple of uniformed guys, and were stopped by a travel broker guy who had an ongoing business, as evidenced by the number of Westerners hanging out there waiting for transport to Luang Prabang and Chiang Mai.
I am normally resistant to using these types of guys, but I had no clue as to how to secure a slow boat seat to Luang Prabang. This guy offered seats at 1,000 baht (which was 100 baht more than what I had been told was the going rate), and threw in a taxi ride to the slow boat landing. I snagged two tickets from him.
Later, having gone through the process, I figured we paid about 100 baht more per person than we could have paid had we done-it-ourselves. The slow boat seat price to Luang Prabang, as written on the daily-bidding chalkboard behind the lady controlling the manifests at the landing, was 833 baht. Throw in a generous 60 baht per person for the taxi to the landing, and it would have cost some 900 baht to do it on my own.
I figure the extra cost was offset by getting helped through the process in a short time (we had about an hour before the planned boat departure time).
But for those who want to save the extra few bucks, you should walk up the ramp all the way, bypassing all touts and businesses, and then hire a taxi to the slow boat landing (a kilometer or two away). Once there, ask where to buy a ticket. The ladies that control the manifests are in a building close to the boats, on the south side of the roadway, on a slight rise. Buy a ticket and get manifested, which will require you to have your passport in hand.
More on preparations for the slow boat ride…
It’s seven hours each day for two days, and there ain’t much food on the boat, other than overpriced chips. So, grab your eats and drinks before you board.
Now, the boat is supposed to leave at 11:00am, so reverse plan accordingly. In the low season, I’d be crossing the Mekong from Thailand by 9:00 at the latest, if I were you. In the on-season? It may be best to get your tickets a day in advance, and spend the night in Huay Xai.
The slow boats are narrow, long things – easily over 100 feet in length, and just wide enough to comfortably seat four abreast with a walkway down the middle. they are diesel driven, and depending on the construction and maintenance of your boat, you may get a lot of noise and exhaust toward the stern. We had different boats for the two days of the journey. The first was a bit of a heap; the second was better maintained. The first had car-type bucket seats jerry-rigged onto wooden sleds, two seats to a sled, for passenger seating. The second boat also had a lot of wooden bench seating. This requires you to buy and bring your own butt cushion, assuming you are not a masochist.
One more thing on the seats…They are not fixed to the cabin sole. Instead, the two- and three-seat wooden sleds allow the boat to be configured by just sliding them around. This makes for a lot of back-and-forth jockeying by passengers to improve their leg space – a nudge here, a wiggle there, and you gain an inch or two at the expense of your neighbor. There is much potential for some ill feelings.
And the captains…let’s talk about the captains… We had what seemed like an experienced and capable captain on the first day. On the second day, we had a guy who raked against other boats at every landing. He damaged four other boats that day. I reckon he is not a well-liked guy on the river, and must have a great nickname.
Our boats had seating for some 90 passengers. Of those, about 75 were Western tourists. The remainder were Laotians using the boats as a bus system.
The slow boats are much like the ordinary buses in Thailand. They stop for any passenger hailing them from the river bank, which means multiple stops and increased transit time for you. So, if you take a slow boat, just realize that you are on a waterborne ordinary bus.
More on the boat configuration…
The heads (toilets) are probably squat-style affairs, and the floor is usually wet. The crew and some family likely live on the boat, so there is cooking ongoing in the stern along with hanging laundry. The snack and drink sales are toward the back, and cost twice as much as anywhere ashore.
I am not trying to discourage you, but you should know that it’s a slow and uncomfortable two-day trip on a water bus, making frequent stops, and mostly filled with other tourists.
What do you do on a slow boat with seven hours to kill? We held the First Annual Mekong Scrabble Tournament, in which Jen wiped the floor with me, not losing a single game.
The two days are divided by an overnight stop at the town of Pak Beng. Once we landed here, the boat crew allowed the touts from the local guesthouses to board before we were able to start disembarking. That sucked, as we got to stand on the boat longer, after seven hours, with hawkers working us. The touts didn’t get better after leaving the boat, either. So, that’s the first impression we got of Pak Beng, and it wasn’t a good one.
We didn’t see much of Pak Beng. After sitting for hours, and with night coming, we just wanted to get a room, eat, and go to bed. But what we did see of Pak Beng was a place whose sole purpose has become the overnight stay of slow-boat tourists. It was not very appealing.
After getting off the boat, we stiff-armed the touts, walked up the ramp, and headed left down a street leading to three guesthouses that we thought might be workable. We ended up at the Santisouk Hotel (click here to read about it).
There are many, many hotels and guesthouses in Pak Beng. We had no problem at all getting a room without an advance reservation. This was the off season, so maybe it’s different at other times. But even during the off-season, we were getting worked by boat operators and tour folks about the absolute need for hotel reservations, how they could help us, and how we would be screwed if we tried to just shop around when we got there. It’s all fear-mongering bullshit.
So, what’s the Mekong Like between Huay Xai and Luang Prabang?
It winds through hilly, rural countryside. Sometimes the terrain approaches the level of mountainous, and there is the occasional cliff face at water’s edge, but it is mostly hilly. The vegetation is tropical forests, except for the frequent cleared patches that people are farming. The banks have occasional sand beach areas, and some of these are visited by water buffaloes. There are occasional, small villages near it’s banks. There are numerous rock outcroppings in the middle of the river, and on these are bamboo poles that fisherman use to run nets. There is the occasional shallow area that causes the river to pick up speed and the ride to get a bit more interesting, but none of it could be called rapids. The shallow areas cause toilet-bowl swirls in the river that can be large and deep. There is the occasional collection of debris or garbage caught in these swirls.
In most places, I reckon the river runs about 500 meters in width.
The traffic on the river is less than I had expected, as is the overall human activity. Slow boats and speed boats carrying tourists accounted for over half the traffic we saw. The remainder was a handful of cargo vessels, and local fisherman in their small, thin, open boats.
The scenery on the Mekong remains pretty constant between Huay Xai and Luang Prabang.
So, what do we think about the slow boat ride to Luang Prabang?
Well, it is an expensive way to get there. Per person, it costs $33 US for a seat on the boat. Then you have to get a room in Pak Beng, which ran us $8 US. You also have to eat during those two days of travel, and we spent another $16 US each on that. So, if you were traveling along you would have paid $57 US for the total trip. By comparison, we purchased plane tickets from Pai to Chiang Mai for less than that, per person.
As to time, the slow boat is a two-day event. That’s two days on a boat with a bunch of other tourists.
What you see the first day is what you see the second day.
Contrast this with a mini-bus that can get you to Luang Prabang in half a day for $26 US. So, you gotta ask yourself if – in this case – a guy I know was right when he once said, “Transit time is wasted time.”
We are glad we did it, but neither of us would want to do it again. Had it been just a single day, it would have been about right; but two days of literal ass pain in a small seat looking at the same landscape was a touch excessive.
The boat landing at Luang Prabang had less touts than did Pak Beng, which was nice. We got our packs, walked up the ramp, and grabbed a tuk-tuk for the hotel The driver fleeced me for a buck and half more than the normal fare, which I didn’t know until I talked to the hotel clerk about how much a ride should cost to various parts of the city. (By the way, inside the city it should run 10,000 kip per person, or about $1.25 US.)
The hotel we used was the Ban Lao Hotel, which is southwest of the city center, but still an easy walk to just about anything (click here to read about the hotel).
We spent four nights and three full days in Luang Prabang. We walked just about everywhere, took in a handful of it’s Wats, ate at several of it’s restaurants, and watch the morning alms collection by the monks.
Luang Prabang is pricey by the standards of Thailand, and I suspect it’s pricey by the standards of Laos. At restaurants, dishes run two to three times as much as they do on average in Thailand (although the beer is half as much). The taxis charge about twice as much. The hotels are more expensive. We even had a motorbike rental place quote us $15 US per day for a bike, which is a bit over twice as much as top-end Thai rates. The overall cost of staying in Luang Prabang is along the lines of Chiang Rai in Thailand, and that was the most expensive city or town we visited in that country.
Luang Prabang is a very, very touristy place. It has tons and tons of guesthouses and restaurants, and construction is ongoing on many more. Entire streets are filled with seemingly nothing but guesthouses, and I doubt there’s a single street without a few. The remaining space is largely filled by tourism and travel companies, restaurants, massage parlors, and bars.
Intermixed with this stuff are Wats (which charge fees for tourists to see them), normal shops and food stalls for the locals, government buildings, schools, and the occasional dwelling.
In general, those things not devoted to the tourism trade look to be in need of maintenance.
We were in Luang Prabang during the off season, and still it was infested with Western tourists. We rode out a rain storm over a couple of beers in a restaurant we randomly dove into, and there must have been a dozen of us white people in just this one place. During the on-season, Luang Prabang must be more a Western city than a Laotian one.
I want to like Luang Prabang, but it’s too touristy to feel foreign, and it’s just too expensive to warrant sticking around for long.
As to restaurants, they were unremarkable (click here to read more on this).
One of the things for which Luang Prabang is known is the rely morning alms collection by the monks from the many monasteries in the town. It starts at about first light, which was 5:30am for us. Multiple groups of monks walk down sidewalks collecting offerings of food. The monk grouping walk Indian-file, with an older monk in the lead and the youngest ones bringing up the rear. Locals, and tourists that join in, sit on the sidewalk and place food in the monks’ begging bowls as they walk by. The event lasts about thirty minutes.
Jen took photos while I made offerings, with some help from the lady who sold me the food.
Jen was not alone in the photographic effort. A group of five Japanese photographers showed up. They were all decked-out in their cool photographer clothes – cargo shorts, butt packs of gear, bandanas tied around their heads like Johnny Rambo. They were led by an older, aggressive guy that I like to call Asshole Japanese Photographer Guy. They generally just got in everyone’s way and tried to take over prime spots already occupied. Whenever something new started happening, a woman in the group would shout, start running in the new direction, and everyone else would follow. They were annoying.
Unrelated, I need to give credit to the BCEL bank. I exchanged Thai baht for Laotian kip, and the exchanged it for the going rate – no money-changer differences like you typically see in Thailand. Their ATM’s also work well, and do not add an ATM fee like the Thai banks do.
Back to Luang Prabang…
I know that most Western tourists think it’s great, and I imagine that if this was the only place I visited in Southeast Asia I’d be in love; but the same could be said of the tourist haven Pai in Thailand, with which Luang Prabang has much in common. For us, it’s been a nice three-day stop, but now it’s time to move on.
The Short-Term Plan
Tomorrow, we start at loop of several hundred kilometers, generally east of Luang Prabang, with the apogee being the Vietnam border. The distance is great, and we may get sidetracked, but that’s the plan…such as it is.